|United States Department of Agriculture|
|Seal of the Department of Agriculture|
|Logo of the USDA|
|The Jamie L. Whitten Building in Washington D.C.|
|Formed||May 15, 1862
Cabinet status: February 15, 1889
|Preceding Agency||Agricultural Division|
|Jurisdiction||Federal government of the United States|
|Headquarters||Jamie L. Whitten Building
1301 Independence Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C.
|Employees||105,778 (June 2007)|
|Annual budget||US$109.3 billion (2009)
US$129.3 billion (est. 2010)
US$132.3 billion (est. 2011)
|Agency executives||Thomas J. Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture
Kathleen Merrigan, Deputy Secretary of Agriculture
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), also known as the Agriculture Department, is the U.S. federal executive department responsible for developing and executing U.S. federal government policy on farming, agriculture, forestry, and food. It aims to meet the needs of farmers and ranchers, promote agricultural trade and production, work to assure food safety, protect natural resources, foster rural communities and end hunger in the United States and abroad.
Early in its history, the economy of the United States was largely agrarian. Officials in the federal government had long sought new and improved varieties of seeds, plants and animals for importation to the United States. In 1837 Henry Leavitt Ellsworth, a Yale-educated attorney interested in improving agriculture, became Commissioner of Patents, a position within the Department of State. He soon began collecting and distributing new varieties of seeds and plants through members of the Congress and agricultural societies. In 1839, Congress established the Agricultural Division within the Patent Office and allotted $1,000 for "the collection of agricultural statistics and other agricultural purposes."
Ellsworth's interest in aiding agriculture was evident in his annual reports that called for a public depository to preserve and distribute the various new seeds and plants, a clerk to collect agricultural statistics, the preparation of statewide reports about crops in different regions, and the application of chemistry to agriculture. Ellsworth's agricultural focus earned him the sobriquet of "The Father of the Department of Agriculture."
In 1849, the Patent Office was transferred to the newly created Department of the Interior. In the ensuing years, agitation for a separate bureau of agriculture within the department or a separate department devoted to agriculture kept recurring.
On May 15, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln established the independent Department of Agriculture to be headed by a Commissioner without Cabinet status. Lincoln called it the "people's department." In the 1880s, varied advocacy groups were lobbying for Cabinet representation. Business interests sought a Department of Commerce and Industry, and farmers tried to raise the Department of Agriculture to Cabinet rank. In 1887, the House of Representatives and Senate passed bills giving Cabinet status to the Department of Agriculture and Labor, but the bill was Killed in conference committee after farm interests objected to the addition of labor. Finally, on February 9, 1889, President Grover Cleveland signed a bill into law elevating the Department of Agriculture to Cabinet level.
In 1887, the Hatch Act provided for the federal funding of agricultural experiment stations in each state. The Smith-Lever Act of 1914 then funded cooperative extension services in each state to teach agriculture, home economics and related subjects to the public. With these and similar provisions, the USDA reached out to every county of every state.
During the Great Depression, farming remained a common way of life for millions of Americans. The Department of Agriculture was crucial to providing concerned persons with the assistance that they needed to make it through this difficult period, helping to ensure that food continued to be produced and distributed to those who needed it, assisting with loans for small landowners, and contributing to the education of the rural youth.
Allegations have been made that throughout the agency's history that its personnel have discriminated against African-American farmers, denying them loans and access to other programs well into the 1990s. The effect of this discrimination has been the reduction in the number of African-American farmers in the United States. In 1999, the USDA settled a class action lawsuit (Pigford v. Glickman) alleging discrimination against African-American farmers in the late twentieth century. The government's settlement of nearly $1 billion with more than 13,300 farmers was reportedly the largest civil rights claim to date. The 2008 Farm Bill provided for additional farmers to have their claims heard, as 70,000 had filed late in the original program. In 2010 the federal government made another $1.2 billion settlement in what is called Pigford II for outstanding claims.
Today, many of the programs concerned with the distribution of food and nutrition to people of America and providing nourishment as well as nutrition education to those in need are run and operated under the USDA Food and Nutrition Service. Activities in this program include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides healthy food to over 40 million low-income and homeless individuals and families each month,. USDA is a member of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, where it is committed to working with other agencies to ensure these mainstream benefits are accessed by those experiencing homelessness.
The USDA also is concerned with assisting farmers and food producers with the sale of crops and food on both the domestic and world markets. It plays a role in overseas aid programs by providing surplus foods to developing countries. This aid can go through USAID, foreign governments, international bodies such as World Food Program, or approved non profit organizations. The Agricultural Act of 1949, section 416 (b) and Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act of 1954, also known as Public Law 480 or Food for Peace, provides the legal basis of such actions.
Many black farmers across the nation experienced discrimination in their dealings with U.S. Department of Agriculture agencies in their states. Across the nation, black farmers alleged, and the USDA later agreed, they were denied access to loans and subsidies provided by the government. On a national level, farm subsidies that were afforded to white farmers were not afforded to black farmers. Since they were denied government loans, emergency or disaster assistance, and other aid, many black farmers lost their farms and their homes.
Black farmers nationwide joined in a class action discrimination suit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The first prominent cases were filed in federal court in 1997. An attorney called it "the most organized, largest civil rights case in the history of the country."
That year, black farmers from at least five states held protests in front of the USDA headquarters in Washington, DC. Protests in front of the USDA were a strategy employed in later years as the black farmers sought to keep national attention focused on the plight of the black farmers.
That year, representatives of the National Black Farmers Association met with President Bill Clinton and other administration officials at the White House. And NBFA's president testified before the United States House Committee on Agriculture.
In Pigford v. Glickman U.S. Federal District Court Judge Paul L. Friedman approved the settlement agreement and consent decree in the case on April 14, 1999. The settlement recognized discrimination against 22,363 black farmers but the NBFA would later call the agreement incomplete because more than 70,000 were excluded. Nevertheless, the settlement was deemed to be the largest-ever civil rights class action settlement in American history. Lawyers estimated the value of the settlement to be more than $2 billion. Some farmers would have their debts forgiven. Judge Friedman appointed a monitor to oversee the settlement.
Farmers in Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Georgia were among those affected by the settlement.
The NBFA's president was invited to testify before congress on this matter numerous times following the settlement including before the United States Senate Committee on Agriculture on September 12, 2000 when he testified that many farmers had not yet received payments and others were left out of the settlement. NBFA asked Congress to pass legislation that would ensure a full resolution of the discrimination cases.
Environmental Working Group and NBFA issued a report in July 2004 accusing the USDA of withholding nearly three out of every four dollars in the multi-billion dollar settlement of discrimination cases. The report says that the U.S. Department of Justice and the USDA pursued a path of "willful obstruction of justice" in blocking many of the cases. It was later revealed that one DoJ staff "general attorney" was unlicensed while she was handling black farmers' cases. NBFA called for all those cases to be reheard.
NBFA continued to lobby Congress to provide relief. NBFA's Boyd secured congressional support for legislation that would provide $100 million in funds to settle late-filer cases. In 2006 a bill was introduced into the House of Representatives and later the Senate by Senator George Felix Allen.
In 2007 Boyd testified before the United States House Committee on the Judiciary about this legislation.
As the organization was making headway by gathering Congressional supporters in 2007 it was revealed that some USDA Farm Services Agency employees were engaged in activities aimed at blocking Congressional legislation that would aid the black farmers.
The Senate and House versions of the black farmers bill, reopening black farmers discrimination cases, became law in 2008. The new law could affect up to 74,000 black farmers according to some news reports.
In 2008 hundreds of black farmers, denied a chance to have their cases heard in the Pigford settlement, filed a new lawsuit against USDA.
Later in 2008, the GAO issued a new report sharply critical of the USDA's handling of discrimination complaints. The GAO recommended an oversight review board to examine civil rights complaints.
After numerous public rallies and an intensive NBFA member lobbying effort, Congress approved and President Barack Obama signed into law in December 2010 legislation that set aside $1.15 billion to resolve the outstanding Black farmers cases.  NBFA's John W. Boyd, Jr. attended the bill signing ceremony at the White House.
As of 2013, 90,000 African-American, Hispanic, female and Native American farmers had filed claims, some fraudulent, or even transparently bogus. Lack of documentation is an issue complicated by a practice by the Department of Agriculture of discarding denied applications after only three years. In Maple Hill, North Carolina the number of successful claimants was 4 times the number of farms with 1 out of 9 African-Americans being paid.
Important legislation setting policy of the USDA includes the:
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